Friday, December 6, 2013

Joy of Man's Desire

I write a lot of stuff about the history of flight and the United States Air Force, but something I never get to write about is the United States Air Force Band and their vocal accompanists, the Singing Sargeants.

Back in the 1970's I used to live near Ridgefield, Connecticut, which had the nickname of "BandTown, USA" Ridgefield had an amazing music program in its school system, and produced an unimaginable number of talented musicians who went on to professional success. One of their most prolific paths into adult musicianship were their Junior ROTC programs. So many alumni headed into the US military bands, the bands themselves came to town and performed on stage at the high school every year. Even Professor Harold Hill would be impressed.

Due to the town's proximity, I had the chance to hear every United States military band in my high school years. My favorite was, and remains, the Air Force Band. Although all the bands are the cream of the nation's band talent, the Air Force Band was the most wide-ranging in its musical presentations. Everything from John Phillip Sousa to the Bee Gees was fair game, and the talent displayed in performances was a complete knockout. Their vocal troupe, the Singing Sargeants (as the name implies, every member is an OR-5 or greater) could do everything from Gregorian chants to a capella bebop tunes. I think if they handed out application forms at the end of performances, they could sign up the entire audience for basic training the next week.

Seeing the Air Force Band in any location is impressive, but seeing them combined with Air Force history is an inspiring match. What better place could they sing but in a place such as, oh, the Milestones of Flight Hall in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington?

So of course, they did just that.

The US Air Force Band is going to be playing at the NASM through much of December. If you're in the DC area, it's an event not to be missed. Check it out - you don't often get to hear an orchestra performing under an X-15.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A JFK Story

My grandfather-in-law, Chris Elson, knew Jack Ruby. Chris was the owner-operator of the Kings Club, the restaurant in Dallas's Adolphus Hotel. As a restauranteur, he knew everyone that served food and hired waitresses in Dallas. Ruby ran the Carousel Club, a burlesque bar across the street from the Adolphus.

On the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I asked Chris what he thought of Jack Ruby, when he knew him back in the day.
Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald, who shot JFK.

"He was a pimp," said Chris. "He hired a lot of girls who had money problems, drug problems, and pimped them out at his bar." Chris didn't like him at all.

Chris was interviewed by the Warren Commission about any discussions or sightings of Jack Ruby's roommate, George Senator,  after the JFK assassination. Here's the only thing he mentioned to the Commission:

CHRIS ELSON, owner and operator of the Kings Club and the Burgurdy Room, Adolphus hotel, advised the Burgundy Room located on the lobby floor and the Kings club located on the sixth floor of the Adolphus Hotel are owned and operated by him.  Neither of the clubs opens until noon. ELSON advised that immediately after the assassination of President KENNEDY on November 22, 1963, he contacted the manager of the Adolphus Hotel and found that the Century Room would not open on November 22 and 23, 1963, and he immediately contacted all of his employees who work in the Burgundy Room and Kings Club and advised them that neither would be opened until Monday, November 25, 1963.

ELSON advised that on November 28, 1963, GEORGE SENATOR contacted him personally at the Kings Club and stated he had a complaint to make against the piano player in the Burgundy Room. On the evening of November 28, 1963, the piano player allegedly made a remark about JACK RUBY and ELSON contacted all employees and it was determined  that none of the employees had seen JACK RUBY, RALPH PAUL, GEORGE SENATOR, or EVA GRANT from November 22 to November 28, 1963.

The employees of the Burgundy Room advised they were reading the headlines of a  newspaper regarding JACK RUBY and this was the basis for the complaint by GEORGE SENATOR.

Senator made a claim that he had met with associates of Jack Ruby at the Kings Club on the 23rd of November, but since Chris explained that the restaurant was closed, this meeting couldn't have happened there. Not a big deal, but it's a discrepancy in testimony that conspiracy theorists try to hang things on.

A Story about November 22nd

I asked Chris what he remembered about November 22nd. Did he see the motorcade? "Oh yes," said Chris, "it was right in front of the restaurant." Here's the memory he shared about that day:

"I never really liked Kennedy,"
he said. "Don't know why, I just didn't like him. We figured lunch would be late that day because everyone downtown would want to see the President, so we decided to hold off the restaurant opening until 12:30."

"Outside the hotel, we had an awning over the sidewalk that wrapped around the whole building. Some of the girls (waitresses) wanted to get a good look at Jackie, so they went upstairs to walk out on top of the awning. They said I should come and see the President, so I went, too."
The Adolphus Hotel today. Note the balcony awning.

"We climbed through the windows on the second floor and stepped out on the awning just as the motorcycles started coming down the street. The President's car was right up front and we saw him and Jackie and all the other people."

"Now, the President would do this thing where he'd point to a group of people on the sidewalk and they'd all wave and he'd wave back at them. And he kept doing this as their car drove down the street. And then he pointed up at the awning with all of us standing there, and we all started waving back at him. I was surprised I was waving, because I didn't really like the guy."

"So, then the cars all passed by and we started climbing back in the windows to go downstairs and open for lunch. So I'm the last one downstairs. As I'm walking down the stairs, I think to myself: why don't I like that guy? He seems like a nice man, he has a pretty wife, they both seem really happy. I could like that guy!"

"As I walk into the bar area, we had a TV on that was showing the parade. All of a sudden, the man on the TV said the President's been shot. And I think to myself: I really just got to like that guy, and now he's dead."

I've been writing articles and essays about the Kennedy assassination since I was twelve years old. There's a whole industry of conspiracy crazies who debate testimony and evidence Oswald acted alone. After decades of reading all the theories and seeing the places where events occurred, the only rational conclusion I think anyone can draw is that Oswald imagined himself to be a revolutionary and had the unfortunate luck of working in a tall building on a day when the President of the United States would be driving by his office. Fifty years of arguments hasn't made a compelling case against Oswald's guilt, and I've decided not to write about the subject any more.

As to the minutiae that people argue about: I think it's all based on the same thing Chris said: we all really just got to know the President, and now he's dead. It's therapy, not revelation.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Edith Keeler Must Die

Don't copy-paste legends
I saw the midnight premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness early Thursday morning. The initial 2009 reboot of the franchise was an intriguing blend of classic Star Trek motifs through a 21st Century sensibility, so I thought I'd enjoy this continuation of the new films even more than the kickoff  movie.

 As I soon discovered, that idea was a colossal miscalculation.

Yes, it's obvious that the franchise needs to be geared toward a mass audience, and a market of Star Trek aficionados simply can't pay enough in ticket purchases to offset the costs incurred by Paramount every time the studio mounts one of these productions. The movies, therefore, have to follow a strict diet of predictable action, adventure, pretty people, and explodey stuff in order to maintain ticket sales and repeat business.
This is a mandatory, yet completely unessential, three-second scene that fulfilled
Paramount's requirements for "a sexy new Star Trek."

   Yet, there still has to be something of the heart of Star Trek-type stories to consider these films part of the Star Trek universe. Director J.J. Abrams doesn't seem to agree with this idea, as evidenced by the plot of the latest adventure of Captain Kirk & company.

Abrams famously stated he was never a Star Trek fan growing up, and really never watched much of the series until he was hired to direct the first reboot film. It's almost a matter of pride to him that he had no love for Trek as a child, and this lack of affection seems to percolate through the latest film.

Note: before I continue any further, I want to assure you that I do not want to spoil any plot elements for people who haven't seen the movie, so I'm going to talk in general terms about the problems in this film. My criticisms will probably make more sense after you've seen the movie, but I think it's important to view the film without having any plot surprises ruined for you.

The attitude of the script seems to be that it was written by someone who screened several key episodes of Star Trek and watched a few of the films, but had no idea about the personalities of the characters mentioned in the shows. It's as if they had watched "City on the Edge of Forever," and then decided to rewrite Edith Keeler as a Romulan spy. Sure, everyone in the film is saying  the same catchphrases that resonate from earlier episodes and films, but the screenwriter Damon Lindelof doesn't seem to understand why the characters say the things they do. The ignorance of the why part turns the phrases into gibberish, or worse, unintended comedy.
The Squire of Gothos? Cadet Finnegan? Sure, pick a TOS villain and cast Cumberbatch in the role.

You don't have to be a Trekkie to know the basic rules of Star Trek: Kirk makes bold decisions, Spock's favorite word is "logic," guys in red shirts don't live long. But the characters and their interactions were more complex than superficial features. Even the guest stars on the old TV show had backstories that explained their reasons for doing things: Commodore Decker was driven by guilt over the loss of his crew to attack the Planet Killer in a shuttlecraft; Khan Noonian Singh was the pride-drunk leader of a remnant of 20th Century supermen whose weakness was his arrogance; Commander Balok was a master of deception because his diminutive  race had previous run-ins with aggressive species. The aliens and opponents the crew of the Enterprise faced each week had motives and desires that made sense in the context of the plot of every show. 

May the Force be with you, Frodo. Epic misunderstanding of a franchise.
Star Trek Into Darkness? Not so much. The biggest failure of the film is the outright looting of previous Star Trek characters and situations in order to evoke audience nostalgia for those original TV and film moments. We're given a bad guy named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who turns out to be a character from the TV show - - except this character doesn't act anything like the original character. When dialog from the original character's appearance is repeated in this film, then, it doesn't quite make sense with what we see on screen. Imagine, for example, having a Klingon suddenly appear on screen without introduction and shout "HARCOURT FENTON MUDD!" at Mr. Spock - - - it's almost at that level of incoherence.

The motivations of the villains are breathtakingly shallow. They are bad guys simply because the script needed bad guys at certain points in the film. New locations crop up only because the Enterprise crew required a new place for fight scenes scheduled at regular intervals in the movie, and the previous venues had been destroyed during earlier fights. Ships are destroyed, crash, and somehow fly again because they're needed for the next battle scene. In one particularly absurd moment, a starship, already blown up by six dozen photon torpedoes, reappears for another barrage of phaser fire.

Don't worry, it's only a scratch.
The biggest problem (and I'm going to be as vague as I can so as not to spoil anything) is the lack of loss in this film. Yes, there are deaths of characters, but the solutions to otherwise fatal situations are telegraphed so early and often in this film that the audience doesn't care when people fall off the roofs of speeding cars, or get shot, or have their ships blown up around them. There is no peril that can't be erased, and without the high stakes of life or death, character mortality is no more of a concern than losing a turn during a Super Mario Bros game.

I could continue with nitpicking the howling continuity errors, the usurption of the laws of physics, and the over-reliance of jam-packing every single scene with floating debris and shuddering camera angles, but those points don't begin to match the immensity of the ineptness of the script. This is a Star Trek film, mostly in the sense that Paramount owns the intellectual property and that the character names are the same as those used in the original Roddenberry series. It is not a Star Trek film, though, in any aspect where it's supposed to match the quality of the original series' story-telling, or show respect for the characters and their motivations. It's an auto-tuned version of Star Trek, replete with mandatory set pieces to please the ticket-buying audiences of the world. I'm not saying it wasn't a fun movie - - it's just not really about Star Trek anymore. If Edith Keeler must die, the reason shouldn't be so that there's a satisfying explosion at the end of the film.

Let's cram some more merchandise onboard, shall we?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Last of the First

MA-9. the final Mercury flight

Last year, my erudite buddy Brian Fies and I were discussing (via blogs) that the next few years were going to be chock-a-bloc with 50th anniversaries of the Space Age. May 15th, 2013 marks yet another golden anniversary - - this time an ending, rather than a beginning.

Mandatory image of all manned Mercury launches
The Mercury 7 astronauts were the trailblazers of the American space program. In just six flights (Deke Slayton was sidelined with a heart murmur), the Mercury astronauts tested their vehicles, their navigation skills, and even their own bodies as lone pilots in space.  Although NASA moved ahead with construction of the Gemini two-man vehicle and the Apollo moonship, the results of the Mercury program's flight data would shape all manned space programs to come.

Alan Shepard rode his Mercury craft in a parabolic suborbital flight lasting just fifteen minutes. John Glenn's first orbital flight lasted just a little over four hours. As the Mercury mission continued, the flight durations lengthened.

By May of 1963, NASA felt ready to attempt a 24-hour flight in space. Preparations for such a long-duration mission required the removal of the ship's periscope to provide room for extra oxygen tanks and batteries to power the instruments.  To offset the weight of the extra batteries, redundant attitude thrusters were removed from the nose of the ship.  NASA engineers decided that since the primary thrusters had proven reliable, backup thrusters were no longer necessary.

Cooper was the first American astronaut to be seen
on video, live from space.

Just after 8:04am on May 15, 2013, astronaut Gordon Cooper's MA-9 spacecraft Faith 7 lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Cooper had a full plate of experiments to run through in this mission: tracking a blinking ball that was jettisoned overboard during the first orbit, examining atmospheric drag effects on a tethered balloon trailing the spaceship, collecting blood and urine samples after trying a variety of foodstuffs to see if there were any problems metabolizing things like powdered roast beef or chocolate brownies. The experiments resulted in varied levels of success: Cooper spotted the blinking ball, the balloon never deployed, Cooper didn't open the brownies out of fear that floating crumbs would damage the instruments.

The astronaut managed to doze off for several orbits as the first day in space drew to a close. With his ship powered down to conserve fuel and electricity, Faith 7 drifted lazily along its prescribed path. On the 30th orbit, the first signs of trouble with the ship popped up - - a small panel light indicated that the ship detected a minute change in the g-forces that would signal the beginning of reentry.

Cooper believed the signal was an instrumentation flaw, and ground controllers confirmed that there had been no change to the orbit. During the next orbit, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. The main circuit buss for the instrument panel shorted out, knocking all navigation controls offline. Cooper was left with a radio, his wristwatch, and his eyeballs to navigate his 17,500 mph ship.
Mission accomplished
Fortunately, NASA had trained Cooper for just such an emergency. In contact with John Glenn at the Mercury Control Center, Cooper twisted manual thrust knobs on the sole attitude control system and aligned his retrorockets using a visual gauge on the ship's porthole aimed at the horizon of the Earth. With his stopwatch, Cooper called out a countdown that matched the calculations Glenn had passed up to him from ground controllers. Cooper opened a manual valve as the countdown reached zero, and his three retrorockets fired. Less than twenty minutes later, Faith 7 was bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean, only 4.4 miles from the recovery ship Kearsarge,  -- the closest landing of any Mecury spacecraft to its intended target.

Gordon Cooper would be the last American to launch into orbit by himself, and, until Dave Scott became Command Module Pilot of Apollo 9 in April of 1969, the last American to pilot his own spacecraft in orbit by himself. Project Mercury ended, and was soon eclipsed by the greater challenges of the Gemini missions. May 15th, 1963, though, was the end of America's first tentative steps into space.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A House in Space

An amazing machine, despite all its difficulties.

Forty years ago, I lived about fifty miles north of New York City, in a little town just far away enough from Manhattan for the light pollution to dim and for the Milky Way to shine in the night sky. I didn't know many kids in town as I had just moved there over the previous Christmas, so I spent a lot of time in the evening just enjoying the brilliant stars overhead.

The Moon missions were over. With the cancellation of Apollos 18-20, I didn't think there would be another lunar landing until after I was out of high school. On May 14th, the final Saturn V would launch NASA's Skylab orbital workshop into space. I managed to talk a guidance counselor at my school into letting me watch the launch on a school TV during lunch time. It looked like this:


After the Saturn disappeared into the cloud deck, horrible things started to happen. The micrometeroid shield running the length of the converted S-IV-B stage sheared off the side of the lab, yanking one of the extensible solar panels with it.  The remnant cables of the missing solar panel coiled around the ship, knotting over the other solar panel and preventing its deployment. It would take two of the three planned missions to repair the Skylab enough for it to do many of the experiments for which it was designed.

Despite the near-disaster at launch, Skylab proved to be a remarkable workshop. By the end of the program, the United States had gained an 84-day record of continuous habitation in space. Many of the lessons learned would be put to use decades later on both Shuttle missions and in the construction of the International Space Station.

There's lots of minutiae to talk about in the history of Skylab but I just wanted to mention something I experienced with my own eyes. Before the first crew arrived at the station at the end of May, 1973, there was a detailed series of articles in the New York Times about what had gone wrong with the ship, and what the plan for the repairs would be. At the end of the article, there was a list of viewing times in the NY area for spotting both Skylab and the S-II Saturn stage that had pushed the ship into orbit. I remember standing in my front yard in the darkness, waiting to see if anything would be visible in the night sky.

Suddenly a dim bead of light appeared from the southwest, followed by another, much brighter light traveling at about the same speed. The S-II was slightly ahead of Skylab, as it was continuing in a slightly lower (and therefore faster) orbit. I had never seen two objects orbiting the Earth at the same time, and it struck me that this would probably be a common sight when I was older, as the sky filled with many orbiting Shuttles and stations.

I was wrong about the number of ships I'd see, but I was correct that I'd see multiple ships in space at the same time in my old age. By 2009, I was living in Massachusetts, and I remembered the Skylab flyover from so many years ago as I watched the Space Shuttle Discovery maneuver to dock with the International Space Station.

The ISS outshines the accomplishments of Skylab in just about every way, but Skylab's pioneering experiences (both operationally and in its repair) made the later achievements of the ISS possible.

And the stars look very different today

The Internet is agog with the release of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's video cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" - - a musical interpretation filmed almost entirely onboard the International Space Station.

Hadfield is seen floating in the Tranquility module's cupola, the Japanese Kibo module, and the hatchway to a waiting Soyuz spacecraft. A  unattended, velcro-studded guitar spins languidly through the station, while Hadfield sings lyrics of a space pilot surrounded by technology, viewing a Universe beyond all imaginings.

When people think about the "importance" of manned space flight, it's usually about having someone on hand to repair broken equipment and second-guess computer errors far from home. The true reason people are in space, I believe, is for moments such as this video. We need people in space to interpret and humanize the exploration so that we, as a planet, can share the experience. Folks like Chris Hadfield take the known (a Bowie song, a guitar, a piano) and show us the unknown (looking out the window and seeing a planet) with the reference point of our culture. It's why everyone remembers Alan Shepard's golf shots on the Moon during Apollo 14. It's why we still watch archival footage of Dave Scott and Jim Irwin driving the first lunar rover across the Moon's surface during the Apollo 15 trip. It's even why Ron Howard made the Apollo 13 movie - - when something goes wrong in space, the only time we really care is if there are people onboard.

Hopefully, someday before the centennial of human spaceflight, a human being will make a cover video of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" -- from the surface of that planet. Certainly another cultural moment everyone on our planet will enjoy.

Friday, April 12, 2013


Yuri Alexevich Gagarin
First Man in Space
It was a political act. It had little to do with piloting. It was a dangerous stunt that almost cost a man his life, but it was the moment that began all manned spaceflight that followed. Fifty-two years ago today, Yuri Gagarin was strapped into an eight-foot-wide, aluminum-alloy sphere and launched into Earth orbit.

Gagarin was a tiny fellow, barely 5' 2". He was assigned the mission mostly because he didn't add much to the payload of the automated spacecraft. Sergei Korolev, the Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, said a final command to him before Gagarin climbed into the spacecraft: "Come back."

The ship Gagarin rode into space was called Vostok, which means "East" but also carries the idea of "Dawn" - - the beginning of a new day. The Vostok wasn't originally designed as a crewed spaceship - - Korolev's engineers based its construction on the requirements for a reconnaissance satellite, capable of hoisting several hundred pounds of cameras, lenses, and film into orbit. The ship was supposed to counter the American Corona project, which was already returning miles of photographic intelligence about Soviet air bases back to the CIA. Korolev managed to tack on the manned aspect of Vostok as a selling point to the Soviet politburo, who liked the secondary role for what it was: a great tool for propaganda about "space exploration," while concealing Vostok's primary purpose as a spy ship.

1:4 scale model of Vostok at the Kansas Cosmosphere.
Service Module at left, Descent Sphere at right.
Because Vostok's chief purpose was for unmanned missions, the control and operation of the ship was entirely automatic. A cosmonaut's role as pilot, then, was superfluous. Korolev worried about "interference" by pilots during flight, so the onboard controls were locked down with a password. As a compromise between the designers and the flight controllers, the ship carried a sealed envelope containing the manual override code. Cosmonauts were forbidden to open the envelope without approval from the mission operators back on Earth. I'm not exactly sure how they would stop a cosmonaut from opening the envelope.

Launch Day

On the morning of April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin rode a bus to the base of the R-7 rocket that would launch his Vostok into the sky. He saluted Korolev, shook hands with several ground support personnel, and then climbed a ladder up to the Vostok's hatch. The ground team screwed on the hatch, and then needed to remove and reseat the hatch when they noticed it hadn't quite sealed properly. At 8:07am local Baikonur Time, the twenty engines of the R-7 Semyorka booster ignited, and Gagarin's ship lifted off the pad. He shouted "Поехали!" ("pyoucali!" or "Let's go!") into his microphone as the ship cleared the launch site.

Six minutes after launch, both the boosters and the protective cover around Gagarin's ship separated from Vostok 1. The cosmonaut's first opportunity to view the Earth from space revealed a cloud-covered morning over central Russia. "I can see the Earth. The visibility is good. I can almost see everything. There's a certain amount of space under the cumulus cloud cover," he reported back to Baikonur before flying out of radio range.

Unlike the American network of ships and ground stations spread across the world, the Soviet program had only a small group of ships scattered along Gagarin's intended flightpath. With limited data being returned to the control site, Korolev's people weren't sure if Vostok was in a stable orbit for nearly a half hour after launch.

Things were equally mysterious for Gagarin. Since he had only a few instruments to inform him about his ship's status, Gagarin could only rely on whatever information the ground controllers could radio to him during the brief moments when they were in touch via the relay ships. As he flew within communications range of a radar station in southeastern Siberia, Gagarin asked,  "What can you tell me about the flight? What can you tell me?" The station radioed back that they had nothing to report and that Korolev (code-named "Number Twenty") had no instructions for him. Vostok-1 continued its flight as it headed down the length of the Pacific Ocean.

At the half-way point over the Straits of Magellan, the Vostok attitude control system identified the Sun rising in the eastern sky. The ship aligned itself for retrofire, arming the service module's sole remaining engine. Korolev's mission designers had an unusual backup plan in the event of the rocket's failure during reentry: the selected orbit would decay naturally in 7-10 days, so they loaded Gagarin's crew module with a week's worth of food and oxygen to wait out the "organic" landing mode.

Fortunately, the retrorocket ignited successfully, chopping the orbital parameters to intersect with a ground track down to Siberia. Immediately after retrofire, though, came the mission's greatest failure. The service module containing the navigation and propellant equipment failed to detach from the descent sphere. As the upper atmosphere began to buffet the two modules, the sphere began to whip around the service module at an ever-increasing rate. Gagarin was experiencing more than 8 g's of lateral force, compounded by the deceleration effects of the atmospheric reentry. Ground controllers lost contact with the ship as it passed over Egypt. They wouldn't be able to communicate until the Vostok ship passed through the ionization layer.

Ejection tube of Vostok ship.
Kansas Cosmosphere
The buffeting snapped the connection between the service and descent modules, and Gagarin's ship managed to right itself to deploy the ship's parachute. As the ship approached an altitude of 23,000 feet, the cosmonaut ejected from the descent module, just as cameras and film would be jettisoned on unmanned reconnaissance missions. Gagarin descended separately from his ship because Korolev's spacecraft designers couldn't figure out how to build a parachute capable of landing both payload and ship safely. It was an embarrassing compromise for Korolev, and this aspect of the mission plan was kept from the West for decades.

In the Saratov region of western Siberia, two farm girls saw a pair of parachutes descending overhead. A man suspended by one of the parachutes landed on a nearby hill. Dressed in an orange suit with a large white helmet, the farm girls began to back away as he approached. They had heard about the American pilot Gary Powers and didn't want to be involved with another spy pilot. "Don't be afraid!" yelled Gagarin, lifting his visor. "I'm Russian!" Gagarin's  25,000 mile flight ended on a Siberian farm a little more than an hour and a half after it began.

Fifty two years later, the world celebrates the birth of manned spaceflight with Yuri's Night, a series of parties and star-gazing that anyone is free to join in and participate. Although Americans tend to ignore the achievements of other nations in space, this is truly an international event to appreciate. Gagarin's quick jaunt into space motivated Americans to reach for the Moon, and built the foundation for the world's cooperative program: the International Space Station. Go and enjoy Yuri's Night tonight, and think about the little guy who took that first flight.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Just say Dr. No.
My friend Mark collects astonishing amounts of James Bond memorabilia. He's got Spanish one-sheets of Goldfinger, and first editions of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Autographed pictures of Sean Connery and Roger Moore adorn his office walls, and somewhere in a climate-controlled warehouse in Montana, I'm sure he has a couple of prop guns from You Only Live Twice. It's an expensive hobby, but when people have disposable income, it's human nature to collect things.
Probably one of the most common parlor games is to imagine what you'd do if you had, say, $100 million to spend on a hobby. What would you buy? Where would you go? One man's answer to these questions made the news this week, and it involved a bit of space history. What a perfect excuse to talk way too much about rocket ships from long ago.


If you'll recall, a while back I talked about Wernher von Braun's missile men and the political obstacles they faced in launching the first American satellite.The Army, Navy, and Air Force were simultaneously developing missile systems, and the expensive research work was becoming redundant. In 1956, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson ordered the Army to turn over all ICBM development with a range of more than 200 miles to the Air Force.
Here's the problem: von Braun's team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) would now be limited to regional rockets - - their Jupiter missile was far outside the range of Wilson's 200-mile range limit. ABMA could continue to work on their research, but needed to cripple their performance to be permitted further tests. These restrictions, of course, went out the window when Sputnik launched and the Navy's Vanguard program failed to get an American satellite into orbit. The ABMA team put America's Explorer I satellite into orbit on the last day of January, 1958.

Let's back up a little bit. While all the slicing and dicing of the service branches' rocket labs was going on, the DoD had unofficially created another task force, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), whose mission was to figure out what new technologies would be needed by the Space Age military. Through ARPA, the DoD spotted a need for a heavy-lift vehicle that could put giant communications and reconnaissance satellites into orbit. The launch vehicles would need to be able to haul twenty tons of payload into low Earth orbit, or push six tons of payload into interplanetary space. What exactly the military needed with interplanetary missiles wasn't explained.
While all this was getting sorted out between what the Army would be working on and what the Air Force would control, von Braun noticed a loophole in the DoD orders. Secretary of Defense Wilson's directives only applied to weapons, not space vehicles. If von Braun's Army team concentrated on scientific research and not just short-range rocket bombs, they'd be in the clear for building orbital launch vehicles.

A Technological Dead End

As mentioned in an earlier post, the von Braun Redstone was a direct engineering descendant of the German V-2 rocket. The fuel pumps, the tank plumbing, even the thrust steering vanes built into the exhaust plumes were modifications of the WWII-era rocket bombs. There was no easy way to scale this design into a ship big enough to throw twenty-ton spaceships into orbit.
Heinz-Hermann Koelle, Rocket Guy
Dr. von Braun turned to Heinz-Hermann Koelle, a former Luftwaffe pilot, mechanical engineer and pen pal of von Braun after the war, to examine ways of turning the experience of building Redstone and Jupiter missiles into a sort of "Super Jupiter" that could approach the heavy lift requirements of ARPA. Koelle figured a quick way to build such a vehicle would be to lash eight Redstones around a central Jupiter core and fire up all the engines simultaneously. The only problem with that design was that the thrust of the Redstone engines was limited to 350 kiloNewtons, completely insufficient for doing any heavy lifting.
Koelle considered a new, monster 1,600 kN engine Rocketdyne was working on called the E-1. The E-1 was being designed for the Air Force Titan I missile, but Rocketdyne was having problems getting the E-1's fuel pump to work right. The Air Force changed their mind due to the development delays and went with an Aerojet General engine for the Titan instead.
Although Koelle liked the E-1 design, the delay in engine development didn't work any better for him than it did for the Air Force Titan project. Koelle began looking for other options.
While Koelle was trying to find a solution to the engine question, the Army decided to hand off large rocket development to the newly-formed NASA. ABMA would become NASA's George Marshall Space Flight Center, and the work on the Super Jupiter (now called "Saturn," as the new name meant it was "the next thing after Jupiter") would be a NASA project. All the engines, 'E' and above, would become NASA projects.
Koelle's quest for a quicker replacement for the E-1 on Saturn led him to the Rocketdyne H-1 rocket engine, a smaller (778kN) machine originally designed for the USAF Titan that was close to being tested in development. The ARPA folks told von Braun that ABMA would have to use or lose $10 million in the development budget before the switchover to NASA -- so von Braun and Koelle cobbled together a quick plan to improve the thrust to 890kN, enough for eight engines to match the ARPA requirements for the Saturn I.

Go Big or Go Home

Saturn IB's under construction.
Lots and lots of H-1 engines required.
The configuration of H-1s remained an imperfect solution. Eight engines meant that there were eight fuel pumps, eight lines of propellant, eight lines of oxidizers and eight times the number of opportunities for equipment failure.
Creating anything more powerful in the Saturn series would require larger, fewer engines. There was no point in chasing the E-1: a 1,600kN engine wouldn't be enough for the missions von Braun had in mind. The von Braun team turned to the next development project in the Rocketdyne catalog: the F-1 engine.
The F-1 was mind-boggling in comparison to all previous engine designs. F-1 was planned as generating not 890kN, or even the 1,600kN of the now-scrapped E-1 - - the F-1 was to provide 8,600 kN of thrust. Lashing five of these monsters to the base of a new rocket would generate thirty-four million Newtons, enough to toss 100,000 lbs of payload out of Earth orbit.
The enormous size of the F-1 magnified the development issues with the engine, primarily with resolving combustion instability problems from acoustic oscillations. Being bell-shaped, just about every rocket engine has specific harmonics that form pressure waves when burning propellant. On the F-1, horrific shuddering at 4khz would cause the fuel not to just burn, but to detonate inside the engine bell, destroying the whole mechanism in a sudden explosion. Huntsville engineers took seven years to figure out how to cancel out the oscillations, going so far as to set off bombs of C4 explosive inside the engine bell after ignition to see if their modifications were effective.

"Look at that Rocket Go!"

When the F-1s were finally cleared for flight, they were checked out in an "all-up" test launch of what was now called the Saturn V rocket, launching on the unmanned Apollo 4 mission of November 9, 1967. News media were present and were stationed at the new launch complex 39A, located on Merritt Island.
Walter Cronkite, the veteran quarterback of CBS News coverage in all things space-related, was in a portable trailer three miles from the launch site. He'd seen just about every manned launch at Cape Canaveral, and as a newsworthy event, this ranked as yet another routine unmanned test, though of an unusual size. As the countdown clock clicked to 0:00, Cronkite wondered if the giant beast would make it off the pad.
Watch this video of the launch to hear Walter's first impression of the largest sound made by man that was not an atomic bomb:

The sound was unearthly. The sight of a building thirty-six stories tall rising into the sky and passing through the speed of sound was almost impossible for the mind to grasp. Yet, there it went, and the vehicle to take men to the Moon was ready.
Mandatory illustration of every Saturn V launch.

Twelve Saturn Vs would head off the pad after Apollo 4 for the next six years, tossing 24 men to the Moon. The final launch of a Saturn V would be the liftoff of Skylab, America's first space station, in May of 1973. Although the destinations of the payloads were varied, all the 65 F-1 engines that powered the Saturns ended up in the same place: the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The first stages of the Saturn V rockets weren't reusable, so the F-1s remained in their watery graves for the past 40 years.

A Treasure Hunt

And then, founder Jeff Bezos decided he wanted to collect a few of the F-1s at the bottom of the Atlantic. Specifically, Bezos wanted to track down the engines that launched Apollo XI into space.
Team Bezos
This would be no easy task: NASA hadn't tracked the impact sites of the Saturn boosters, and apart from knowing the trajectories, nobody had a precise location for the individual stages. All the Saturn first stages (with the exception of Skylab, which launch to the northeast) landed in the ocean about 350 miles east of the launch pad. The overlapping rubble of used rockets would make identification difficult, even if the engines managed to survive a 500 mph impact with the ocean's surface.

Mission Accomplished

None of these difficulties seemed to deter Bezos. He and his extremely expensive crew of submarines scanned the ocean floor for months, finally returning radar images of twisted metal almost three miles underwater. Here's a look at what they found:
A piece of space history.

Smashed, but recognizable, Bezos's team discovered dozens of F-1 parts and chunks on the seabed. The crew hauled several up to the ship and brought them back to dry land for identification and restoration. So far, the team hasn't been able to identify complete serial numbers to tie the engines to a particular flight. Federal law dictates that all spacecraft equipment remains the property of NASA, but an agreement between Bezos and the space agency indicates that his expedition will be able to retain at least one F-1 engine for the Seattle Air & Space Museum, conveniently located in the Amazon HQ's back yard.
I've read online discussions where some believe this expedition was a colossal waste of money. My feeling is: it's Bezos's money to waste, and if his collection inspires the next generation of space explorers, what's not to like?

The author with an F-1 engine. I'm 6' 1".

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thirty Pounds of Science

Previously on Citizen O'Kane, I wrote about how the Soviets beat the United States into orbit because President Eisenhower didn't want to win the Space Race on the shoulders of a reconstituted Nazi V-2 missile. The von Braun team, based in Huntsville at the Redstone Arsenal, were forced to cripple their experimental rockets with payloads of sand instead of propellant, just to make sure a competing Navy Vanguard program would get dibs on the first orbital mission.

After the October 4th, 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, all bets were off. Vanguard was nowhere near ready to be launched, and the Department of Defense gave the go-ahead to von Braun's rocket men to gear up for a launch as soon as possible. No more sand-bagged fourth stages, no more launch azimuths ending in the South Atlantic - - this time, the destination was Earth orbit.

The back half was just a rocket motor that wasn't jettisoned,
out of concern it might bang into the payload in orbit.

The folks on the von Braun team also wanted to make the payload more than just a beeping radio transmitter. The goal needed to be science related to make the project more than just a stunt. Fortunately, a payload group at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Lab (under the direction of Dr. William Pickering) had been working on a satellite design for several years. The 30-lb satellite, powered by an experimental mercury battery and built with some of the first transistors ever manufactured, would carry out several experiments once in orbit.

Some of the more intricate experiments were designed by Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa. Dr. Van Allen incorporated a cosmic ray counter and a geiger counter to track the elusive celestial energy particles that were rarely detectible at sea level. Due to the lack of space on the satellite, Dr. Van Allen omitted a data recorder, which eliminated continuous observations except when the satellite passed over a receiving station. The results from these observations were erratic and unexplained, until Dr. Van Allen made the remarkable discovery that massive magnetic bands emanating from the poles seemed to deflect most of the rays. The bands, now called the Van Allen Belts, are probably the greatest discovery of the early Space Age. The Belts reshaped our basic understanding of how Earth's magnetic field  - - they're why life can continue on the planet without being destroyed by celestial radiation.

All that previously unknown information became possible 55 years ago this evening, when von Braun's Juno booster hoisted Pickering's satellite with Van Allen's experiments into their first orbital mission. And we haven't stopped exploring since that evening.

Pickering, Van Allen, and von Braun, hoisting a backup version of their Explorer I spacecraft
at a press conference after their successful launch, Feb 1, 1958.